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The Monk - Matthew Gregory Lewis, Stephen King

”Lucifer stood before him a second time. He borrowed the Seraph’s form to deceive Ambrosio. He appeared in all that ugliness, which since his fall from heaven had been his portion: His blasted limbs still bore marks of the Almighty’s thunder: A swarthy darkness spread itself over his gigantic form: His hands and feet were armed with long Talons: Fury glared in his eyes, which might have struck the bravest heart with terror: Over his huge shoulders waved two enormous sable wings; and his hair was supplied by living snakes, which twined themselves round his brows with frightful hissings. In one hand He held a roll of parchment, and in the other an iron pen. Still the lightning flashed around him, and the Thunder with repeated bursts, seemed to announce the dissolution of nature.”

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How does Ambrosio the most pious, the most venerated monk in all of Madrid find himself at this point bargaining with Lucifer for the tattered remains of his blackened soul?

”His Brother Monks, regarding him as a Superior Being...They were persuaded, that what He did must be right...His monastic seclusion had till now been in his favour, since it gave him no room for discovering his bad qualities. The superiority of his talents raised him too far above his Companions to permit his being jealous of them: His exemplary piety, persuasive eloquence, and pleasing manners had secured him universal Esteem, and consequently He had no injuries to revenge: His Ambition was justified by his acknowledged merit, and his pride considered as no more than proper confidence. He never saw, much less conversed with the other sex; He was ignorant of the pleasures in Woman’s power to bestow.

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Ambrosio had been left on the monastery doorstep “when he was too young to tell his tale”and had never known a moment of the world beyond those monastic walls. Because of these unique circumstances he had never been exposed to temptation, vice, sin or the charms of the female form. Now the upper class women did find his eloquence when he gave sermons so enticing that he quickly became the most popular monk for hearing confessions. Which I often thought that one of the bonuses of being a member of the cloth would be to hear all the juicy details of confession. Now don’t hold anything back young lady salvation is in the details.
I digress.
My point is that even with his sheltered upbringing he had a good idea what all those people were getting up to out there in the regular world, but he had an almost scientific detachment from the conception and the temptations of sin.

The downfall of Ambrosio was just too tempting for Lucifer. He sends Rosario to the monastery to be Ambrosio’s assistance. Rosario keeps his face hidden under a cowl and makes himself indispensable to Ambrosio. After he has gained the trust of the monk he reveals himself to be a woman, a beautiful woman named Matilda. This was a HOLY SHIT moment for Ambrosio. Needless to say after much wringing of hands and grand speeches about his virtue being beyond reproach he finds out after all he is just a man.

”Dangerous Woman! said He; Into what an abyss of misery have you plunged me! Should your sex be discovered, my honour, nay my life, must pay for the pleasure of a few moments. Fool that I was, to trust myself to your seductions! What can now be done? How can my offence be expiated? What atonement can purchase the pardon of my crime? Wretched Matilda, you have destroyed my quiet for ever!”

It really isn’t fair after all. I mean if Lucifer decided to send a beautiful being to any one of us with the intention of getting us to “fall from grace” we would all be doomed. Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought that the creation of Matilda was Lewis’s masterpiece. He said she was “exquisitely imagined” and “superior in wickedness to the most wicked of men." When I think about this book being published in 1796, in the infant stages of novel writing, by a young man of 19 and written in just ten weeks it is staggering to contemplate how wonderfully he developed the villains of this story. The writing is weak when it comes to characters representing the commendable people. They were cardboard cutouts just mere backdrops for the villains to ply their villainy upon.

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Ambrosio soon tires of the beautiful Matilda and turns his attentions to the seduction of Antonia a timid and innocent girl of 15. Matilda turns demon pimp and acquires magic to help Ambrosio feed his growing lust. Lewis builds the tension in this section as there are several moments when we feel that he is about to accomplish his task and something interferes. He knows it is not right to despoil this girl of her virtue, but he can not resist his own base urges. ”Every feature, look, and motion declares you formed to bless, and to be blessed yourself! Turn not on me those supplicating eyes: Consult your own charms; They will tell you, that I am proof against entreaty. Can I relinquish those limbs so white, so soft, so delicate; Thos swelling breasts, round, full, and elastic! These lips fraught with such inexhaustible sweetness? Can I relinquish these treasures, and leave them to another’s enjoyment? No, Antonia; never, never! I swear it by this kiss, and this! and this!”

Of course this is not Ambrosio’s fault. It is the girl’s fault.

”Wretched Girl, you must stay here with me! Here amidst these lonely Tombs, these images of Death, these rotting loathsome corrupted bodies! Here shall you stay, and witness my sufferings; witness what it is to die in the horrors of despondency, and breathe the last groan in blasphemy and curses! And who am I to thank for this? What seduced me into crimes, whose bare remembrance makes me shudder? Fatal Witch! was it not they beauty? Have you not plunged my soul into infamy? Have you not made me a perjured Hypocrite, a Ravisher, an Assassin! Nay, at this moment, does not that angel look bid me despair of God’s forgiveness?

If she just wasn’t so damn beautiful he would have been fine. He would have let her keep her virtue and he would be back on the path to righteousness.

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Matthew Lewis

Now Lewis does ramble around a bit. We follow the adventures of some noblemen trying to save their sister/fiance from being condemned to a convent because her parents made a promise to God. The Prioress turns out to be another great villain and capable of such diabolical vengeance that yet again Lewis made this reader uneasy. He also incorporates the Bleeding Nun into this section.

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”WIth trembling apprehension I examined this midnight Visitor. God Almighty! It was the Bleeding Nun! Her face was still veiled. She lifted up her veil slowly. What sight presented itself to my startled eyes! I beheld before me an animated Corse. Her countenance was long and haggard; Her cheeks and lips were bloodless; The paleness of death was spread over her features, and here eye-balls fixed steadfastly upon me were lustreless and hollow.”

And the Wandering Jew.

”He spoke in a commanding tone, and drew the sable band from his fore-head. In spite of his injunctions to the contrary, Curiosity would not suffer me to keep my eyes off his face; I raised them, and behold a burning Cross impressed upon his brow. For the horror with which this object inspired me I cannot account, but I never felt its equal! My senses left me for some moments; A mysterious dread overcame my courage, and had not the Exorciser caught my hand, I would Have fallen out of the Circle.”

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Wandering Jew by Dore

Stephen King wrote an interesting introduction to this volume. He puts Walpole and Lewis in perspective with the emergence of this Gothic-Horror genre. ”If this new genre had an Elvis Presley, it was Walpole. Then came Matthew Lewis the genre’s first punk, the Johnny Rotten of the Gothic novel. The Monk was a black engine of sex and the supernatural that changed the genre--and the novel itself--forever.”
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Is that Johnny Rotten or is that Matthew Lewis?
That sums up for me why when I was deciding between three stars and four stars I gave the push to four. Lewis published the first edition Anonymously, but then when it became a sensation he published the second edition under his own name and added M.P. to reflect his recently acquired seat in the House of Commons. Charges of “immorality” and “wild extravagances” started to be flung in his direction and “an injunction to restrain its sales was obtained”. Bowing to pressure he reworked and removed some of the more offensive passages. There is nothing like a little controversy to drum up book sales.

Where Walpole and Radcliffe kept the true horror of their writing off screen Lewis audaciously grabs the reader’s hand and forces it into the maw of the gruesome. He writes vividly of the most horrible circumstances. He even came to the attention of Lord Byron. "Wonder-working Lewis, Monk or Bard, who fain wouldst make Parnassus a churchyard; Even Satan's self with thee might dread to dwell, And in thy skull discern a deeper hell." Ghosts, demons, burning crosses, diabolical evil, incest, murder, riots, rape, robbery, crypts, and demonic magic kept the pages turning. If he had put more flesh on the bones of the more honorable characters bringing them up to par with the ingenious descriptions of his villains this would have been a novel to contend with the very best.